If I met Dr Alister MacKenzie…

…which is unlikely, since he sadly died in 1934, I would buy him a pint of beer and tell him that I played golf like him! MacKenzie was self-described as a “good putter, but a mediocre ball striker”, the latter bit I know my golfing partners will argue with because on a bad day I can be rubbish. On the greens however I’m happy just like MacKenzie.

Now, following in the footsteps of MacKenzie at the only original MacKenzie course left untouched in the world, Cavendish Golf Club Buxton, I would go as far as to say I would add a wee dram or two to the aforementioned beer.

As we set out for Buxton the sun shone brilliantly on a March day. The temperature dropped slowly as we approached Buxton and then rose steadily to be the most glorious day with blue sky, moving white clouds and a brisk wind gusting at times. A perfect golfing day for us.

We were greeted, and given our scorecards, by Rachel a very chirpy person indeed who bemoaned the fact she hadn’t had her hair done for us coming. Fortunately as it was a windy day ours didn’t look great! So she beat us hands down.

I have to say that the all round welcome we received was an improvement from my last visit more than ten years ago. That may sound a bit critical but attitudes have had to change in the world of golf due to economic pressure and the rise in people who play on a more ad hoc basis. Clubs have to be more open to visitors and view them as a lifeline to financial stability. Membership at Buxton though still provides great value for money for the weekly golfer.

Secretary Mike Watson  and club Professional Simon Townend were the perfect hosts and we sat together enjoying breakfast, discussing the course which they are rightly proud of.

Cavendish Golf Club have got together with nine other  imaginatively designed MacKenzie courses all within easy reach of Buxton to form an ‘alliance’, so that you are encouraged to play them all.  The first to play is naturally Buxton as it is the most authentic MacKenzie course to survive and MacKenzie’s inspiration for Augusta, which, among other courses, has altered beyond recognition to accommodate the modern game and TV thereby losing it’s complete authenticity, I would be so bold to say. When Ford stopped producing the Cortina and introduced the Sierra to keep up with modern demands the Cortina was dead and buried. If you change a golf course to accommodate current trends the ‘Old Course’ has sadly gone. I can now put the soap box back in the cupboard!

We smiled as Mike showed us a book that he had been reading about a MacKenzie golf course in Ireland, which I will not name here, whose members thought the MacKenzie course wasn’t hard enough so changed it all round. So much for history Eh?

I read with interest the Cavendish Golf Club’s web page before we arrived. It states “Cavendish is thought by some to be Dr MacKenzie’s most accomplished work in the UK and quite possibly the best layout in the world under 6000 yards. It illustrates how skilfully and creatively he blended the layout of the golf course into the surrounding landscape. Nothing jars the eye, nor distracts from the beauty of the natural setting. Those outstanding course design skills, which brought Alister MacKenzie international acclaim when he created the magnificent Augusta National course, in association with Bobby Jones, were developed and honed during his formative years in Great Britain. Cavendish exemplifies MacKenzie’s belief that “length has nothing to do with the quality of a hole”. I couldn’t beat that description so I won’t try because I agreed with it all even on a March day.

With all this rattling in my brain Simon, Lefty and myself headed out onto the course. We were a man down as Newby hurt his back chopping a tree down on Sunday and then attempted  to play the Brabazon two days later and did more damage, so I decided to play along with Simon and Lefty, whilst I took photographs and wrote about my experience. Not the ideal way  to concentrate on your next shot  but nothing could take away the classy style of this course. I think MacKenzie was a typical Yorkshire man (we could be invaded soon!)  “give nowt away” and this course doesn’t. Bunkers are placed to deceive the eye. You think they protect the green only to find the green another fifty yards or so further on. I considered withdrawing my offer of the wee dram at times… but it still stands.

The Clubhouse is light and airy but Mike said that a revamp is long overdue, so it is due for a complete overhaul. The plans are on display as you walk into the Mackintosh style entrance.  Budgets have been set and work was due to commence two days after our departure. From what we saw it will be a great improvement.

I read one report recently on Cavendish which said it was a bit wet underfoot! It’s Buxton we are talking about here, you get what you get. I lived in Buxton fifty years ago and you accept that it has it’ own climate. Even a Derbyshire Cricket Club match was abandoned here in 1975 due to a heavy snow storm. Some say it was only hail but I was putting a tent up in a friend’s garden in Fairfield that day and I say it was snow as the pictures taken can prove!

Time for golf

At 5721 yards off the yellows this isn’t the longest course you will play but then MacKenzie didn’t worry about that as his idea was to give the golfer a challenge and Cavendish certainly does. He used the natural contours of the land, no earth-movers, just hard hand labour to make a course that blends in and weaves through the  countryside. Nothing is forced it’s just natural, but really tricky to play.

We all got away nicely on the first hole including me! Simon, who has been the Professional here for 18 years went a bit to the left which surprised me! Not really, he was a great sport showing me and Lefty the way and having lots of banter all the way round. The first is a nice par four that slopes a little right to left. Avoiding the trees to the right is important.

It was great to go round with the professional pointing out the features of the course and advising on shots. He got us chipping onto the green at the 15th to see if any of us, including himself, could get near the hole from the back of the green. Even on a green that was a bit wet we couldn’t stop the ball rolling away. He was pointing out the importance of getting the tee shot right on this hole to give you a chance of a decent score. MacKenzie was sadistic!

Take the 122 yard par 3 4th for instance. The pin looks miles away, somewhere  down there over the small stream. Simon, annoyingly,  hit the green, Lefty went right into a bush and I completely over-hit and went across the road into a ditch. On the plus side I missed the stream, lake, bunkers and bush! 122 yards, that’s putting distance nearly.

The sloping third green is great, especially if you end up topside of the hole.  I went into the bunker – great! If you put the ball to the right of the green –  that’s so wrong. Stay left and the putt will be easy on the very quick level green. I think this was my best hole, I went a bit downhill from there!

I loved the 8th. We rounded the corner from the 7th and the sun shone down beautifully as the wind just hit us in the face. Simon’s tee shot held up in the air and dropped nicely on the fairway. A big hit but the wind affected distance. My tee shot went off left down the slope leaving a very tricky ‘back up the hill’ shot. The rewards of approaching the green are the most amazing views of the Derbyshire countryside and you become master of all you survey. I do have to admit that one of the attractions of golf for me is the chance to be in the countryside. Perhaps that is why I don’t play too well as I am easily distracted by a beautiful view.  I just can’t help admiring what I see. While some rush to the next shot I want to take in where I am. On the 10th it is vital to get the first shot right, making the second over the plateau below and small stream, and up to the green a massive chance of getting a par. This should be the signature hole I feel.

During the winter some of the self planted trees have been cleared, opening up views to the clubhouse and allowing the wind and sun to dry out the course naturally. The 14th is the only par 5 shot on the course and being stroke index 7 is quite a challenge, in contrast the 5th is stroke index one. But then again that’s an uphill haul and presents a real challenge not just in hitting the ball but getting your breath!

Playing the 18th through the tunnel of trees provided the final challenge of getting across the ravine onto the plateau beyond after which it’s a good run to the green. Lefty and I both failed and so Simon said “try that again”. I told you he was fun at the start of this article didn’t I? We did as we were told and hit our shots high and long landing on the fairway, perfectly positioned for  our second shot. (If you believe that twaddle you’ve had far too many pints of Thwaites bitter). My balls are still down there. I’ll be pleased if you find them because it means you’re down there too. Two can play this sadistic game.

Simon has been the `professional at Buxton for eighteen years and despite other job offers from this country and Europe, has stayed put, and I can see why. Lets face it, he’s quite unique being  one in seventy two worldwide as there are only seventy two MacKenzie clubs left and Buxton is an original. As he went off happily to give a lesson to someone he said “anytime you fancy teeing off early this summer lads, give me a call and I’d love to play another round with you”. That’s an offer we will definitely take up as long as he plays off yellows this time!

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